Sbarro entered the emerging fast-casual pizza space last week with the debut of Pizza Cucinova, a new higher-end concept the company intends to grow.

Pizza Cucinova opened in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 16, the first of three company-owned units scheduled to open over the next six months. A second is scheduled to open in Columbus next March, and a third is designated for Cincinnati in April.

J. David Karam, Sbarro’s chief executive, said the new concept offers high-quality Neapolitan-style pizzas made to order and baked in minutes in high-temperature Woodstone ovens. The restaurant has two ovens, fueled by gas with wood added for flavor, to better accommodate guests during peak demand periods.

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Guests can either select from a number of signature pizzas, such as a steak and gorgonzola with caramelized onions and roasted garlic, or build their own from a list of premium toppings, many of which will be locally sourced. All pizzas are 12 inches with a thin crust made from imported double-zero flour, which Karam described as a finely milled product that absorbs moisture, allowing the crust to stand up to high heat.

Prices range from $5.85 among signature pizzas to $11.50 for more premium options, such as the pie made with shrimp and clams.

The menu also includes a line of signature salads that Karam described as “on trend,” such as burrata with frisee and a drizzle of pesto; or roasted red and yellow beets with walnuts and feta. The concept offers freshly baked cheesecake for dessert, and beverages include eight craft beers on tap and wines by the glass.

Karam said he has been working on the concept for the past 16 months, since he joined the company as a board member after serving as president of Wendy’s International for three years. In March, Karam was named Sbarro’s chief executive.

Pizza Cucinova is designed to be a higher-end concept for Melville, N.Y.-based Sbarro, which is known for its 1,100-unit namesake quick-service Italian brand, primarily located in food courts and other nontraditional locations.

The food at Pizza CucinovaMore to come for Sbarro

The Sbarro brand is also undergoing some changes, said Karam.

Next year in Columbus, the company will introduce a new brand evolution designed for in-line locations — not in malls — that will operate under a new logo using the brand name Sbarro Brooklyn Fresh.

Though a bit smaller than the 3,500-square-foot Pizza Cucinova, the Brooklyn Fresh concept will primarily feature 10- and 13-inch made-to-order pizzas, pastas and salads with dine-in or carryout service, but not delivery — at least not initially. Unlike the food court version of Sbarro’s, Brooklyn Fresh will not offer pizza by the slice.

“Sbarro is known for being in malls, food courts or airports, and while that will remain an important part of our development strategy, we also recognize the importance of developing the brand outside of malls,” said Karam.

If the brand evolution works well, Karam said the new logo and design elements would gradually be integrated into the existing system. “There won’t be a massive remodel strategy,” he said. “It’s like when you see brands like Wendy’s changing their logo. That new logo won’t appear everywhere at the same time, it’s rolled into the asset base over time.”

Sbarro is also accelerating growth overseas, with recent franchise agreements announced in the Middle East, India and Canada and stores opening for the first time in Colombia and Brazil.

Karam said Sbarro has nearly 500 units outside North America with a long runway ahead. “We have 300 stores that are committed for development internationally over the next 10 years, and we’ll continue to build that pipeline,” he said.

Standing out in a crowded segment

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Meanwhile, the company hopes to carve out a niche at the more premium end of the pizza spectrum with Pizza Cucinova, which joins a growing number of fast-casual pizza players racing for national or regional domination.

Chains with aggressive growth plans include Your Pie; MOD Pizza; Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza; Pie Five; PizzaRev; Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint; Live Basil Pizza and Project Pie, just to name a few. Quick-service competitor Fazoli’s also recently announced plans to open a fast-casual pizza concept called Venti-Tre in Baltimore next year.

Karam acknowledged that the space is crowded but he said most entrants are relatively small. “It’s an emerging category,” he said, noting that the pizza segment overall is already crowded with independents and big chains that “have been beating each other up over price for the past decade or even two decades.”

Customers in line at Pizza CucinovaThe market was ripe for the evolution of pizza as a more premium product, he said. “Artisan pizza isn’t going to command the lion’s share, but I think it will siphon off a portion of the category for consumers who are looking for better quality and more differentiated products,” he said. “And it’s relatively virgin territory.”

Sbarro is joining the game with an advantage, he added. “I like the fact that we’ve got a management team that has the experience running a very, very large brand —myself included. And we’ve got an infrastructure ready to scale, and a brand and concept that’s been refined as a result of the talent we’ve brought to it, both internal and external,” said Karam.

Karam said Sbarro would explore franchising the Pizza Cucinova brand down the road, once the company has refined the brand. Still, because of the challenging culinary component, Karam added that the company will likely be very “deliberate and selective” about choosing the right franchise partners to grow the brand.

“Our focus right now is one store at a time, one customer at a time,” said Karam. “I don’t want to be the fastest-growing player, and I don’t necessarily want to be the biggest. We just want to be the best in this space.”

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